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“Frans Timmermans is like a grandpa to us all”

“Frans Timmermans is like a grandpa to us all”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Still from the live-stream

Students on EU party leader debate

Five Spitzenkandidaten entered into debate before 750 students at the Theater aan het Vrijthof in Maastricht last week. It was the first large party leader debate for the European elections on 23 May. In the absence - after a cancellation - of the German Christian Democrat Manfred Weber, one of the favourites to take over from President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the remaining candidates discussed climate change, digitalisation and the future of Europe. Observant asked three students who attended what they thought of the debate.

Hungarian master’s student Eszter Sailer (Public Policy and Human Development) has nothing but praise for the organisers of the debate. “It could easily have been a mess, with five people debating. But it was well structured, the moderators did a great job keeping the candidates within their time limits, and the topics were relevant. Not just to young people, I think something like climate change affects everybody. It didn’t bother me, because I’m interested in politics anyways, but perhaps they could have talked a bit more about how to increase voting turnout, how to regain people’s trust in the system.

“It also helped that the candidates could put together a sentence, it’s not a given that politicians speak well. Thanks to the moderators' questions, they were forced to be very concrete in their plans, there was no time for vague talking. All in all it was very enjoyable. I went in with a blank mind, but hearing people speak is so different from just reading words about them on a screen.”

As far as she was concerned (and also according to the public poll), the winner of the debate was Social Democrat Frans Timmermans. “He speaks with passion, but not in an aggressive way. He feels like a grandpa to us all.” Bas Eickhout, leader of the Greens, came in a close second. “His views are similar to mine, I’m pro green.” For her vote, however, she leans towards the Social Democrats. “I’ll have to research the candidates though. I accidently signed up for voting in the Netherlands for Dutch candidates instead of Hungarian ones, so I’ll have to look them up.”

Italian master’s student Jacopo Ardito (European Studies) doesn’t really believe in a ‘winner’ of a debate, but thought Frans Timmermans, Bas Eickhout and liberal Guy Verhofstadt all did well. “The interaction with the public was fantastic. I felt very represented as a young voter, especially because of the survey we got to fill in beforehand about the topics and questions that would be discussed. I also followed the discussions on social media.”

The one complaint he has is that it wasn’t really a debate. “It was good that every candidate had equal time to express their ideas, but the time limit did make it more of a Q&A session.”

During the debate he was pleasantly surprised by the Greens. “I thought they had some very important points.” However, he will not vote for them on 23 May. “The Greens are not well represented in Italy. The parties they have an alliance with, are not the ones I share ideas with on a national level. I don’t feel comfortable giving them my vote. I feel this is an issue within Europe, that sometimes there is too big of a division between a party’s national and European politics.” His vote will instead go to the Social Democrats.

Who he’s going to vote for? “That’s still a game for all”, says the Portuguese Jorge Carmo Pereira, master’s student of European Law School. And that’s not because the different points of view weren’t clear, on the contrary: “Positions have been made very clear, all have a point.” That clarity was largely the result of the format of the debate, Carmo Pereira says. “The Spitzenkandidaten had only one minute to make their point, so they had to be very concise; there was no room for long stories that say very little. Only good debaters can do that.” And all participants were, Carmo Pereira says. “Although the leaders of the smaller parties – Jan Zahradil and Violeta Tomič – were less able to adapt their stories to the young audience.” Carmo Pereira agrees that Timmermans was the winner of the evening: “He was the most consistent and explained his ideas most clearly, and he was very comfortable on the stage. The only downside of the evening was the absence of the Spitzenkandidat of the European People’s Party. That party is very big in the European parliament; it would be interesting to see what they think.”

Cleo Freriks and Yuri Meesen

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